How to Safely Thaw Frozen Chicken
Getting chicken safely from a rock-hard frozen state to a thawed ready-to-cook state raises a lot of questions. Here are the answers.
First, chicken should never be thawed or defrosted on the counter at room temperature or in a bowl of hot water. The following methods should allow you to thaw chicken and keep it out of the “danger zone” (40 to 140°F), which is the temperature zone that allows bacteria to grow.
In general, larger cuts of chicken, especially a whole chicken, should be thawed in the refrigerator, as the chicken will start to cook on the outside if it is thawed in a microwave, and it will take a very long time in a bowl of water. However, smaller cuts, and especially boneless cuts, do well with the cold bowl of water or microwave method.
This is the most reliable and safe method, and also the one that requires no hands-on attention. But you need to plan ahead, especially if you are thawing a whole bird, or a large amount of bone-in pieces in a single package.
Even a pound of ground chicken or a couple of pounds of boneless chicken breasts will probably take up to a day to fully thaw in the fridge, and a a bunch of bone-in pieces or a five pound bird might take two days. You can leave chicken thawed in this way for another day or two in the fridge before cooking.
Quick Thaw in Water
Frozen chicken can be placed tightly sealed (either in vacuum sealed bags or sturdy, leak-proof, zipper-top storage bags) in a bowl of cold water.
Do NOT thaw chicken in hot water! It’s not safe. Besides possibly causing bacteria to form, warm water will also start to “cook” the outside of the meat before the middle is thawed). Change the water every 30 to 45 minutes to make sure the water stays cold.
Ground meat might thaw in an hour, a small amount of boneless chicken will probably defrost in 1 to 2 hours, larger amounts and bigger cuts may take a few hours.
If you are thawing multiple pieces in a bag, once the pieces have thawed enough to be separated, open the bag, pull the pieces apart, then reseal the bag and return it to the water. Keep checking until the meat is thawed. Once the meat is thawed using this method it should be cooked right away.
Some newer microwaves have settings that allow you to defrost or thaw chicken (and many other ingredients) by simply pressing a button. Read your instruction manual to see if your microwave has this kind of capacity, and note special directions having to do with the amount of chicken, and the type of cut.
Otherwise, you can thaw your chicken in the microwave but it will require some attention on your part. Set the microwave to defrost, and check every few minutes to see when it is thawed properly. Move the chicken around in the microwave, especially if you don’t have a rotating tray. Even if you are super vigilant, often the thinner parts of the chicken will start to cook a bit while the thicker parts are still thawing, so it’s not the ideal method for defrosting.
Meat thawed in the microwave should be cooked right away.
Cooking Frozen Chicken
You can cook chicken in its frozen state. The general rule of thumb is to add another 50% of cooking time from the time suggested in the recipe. Certain cooking methods, such as braising, or cooking it in the slow cooker, or using the chicken in soups and stews lend themselves better to cooking frozen meat.
Other methods (like sautéing, roasting, or microwaving) may yield slightly uneven results, with the outside of the chicken cooked more than the inside, or a less-than ideal texture.
For instance, you won’t be able to get a nice caramelized exterior on a piece of frozen chicken if you sauté it, as the moisture in the chicken will be slowly released as it defrosts in the pan, preventing browning.